Macabre Dis­cov­ery

An iron cage res­ur­rects the story of La Cor­riveau — the witch of Que­bec folk­lore.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By An­dré Pelchat

The leg­end of a French-Cana­dian folk­lore char­ac­ter be­comes true his­tory after the dis­cov­ery of her cage.

IN SEPTEM­BER 2013, AN UN­USUAL ITEM AP­PEARED IN THE QUE­BEC ME­DIA: LA COR­RIVEAU’S CAGE HAD BEEN FOUND. THE DIS­COV­ERY MADE HEAD­LINES AND WAS THE SUB­JECT OF NU­MER­OUS COMMENTARIES. WHAT WAS THE STORY, AND WHY DID IT CAP­TURE SO MUCH AT­TEN­TION?

In 2011, Clau­dia Mén­dez, a vol­un­teer and tour guide with the So­ciété d’his­toire de Lévis, in Lévis, Que­bec, found a sur­pris­ing ar­ti­fact at the Pe­abody Mu­seum in Salem, Mas­sachusetts. The wrought-iron ex­oskele­ton was iden­ti­fied as hav­ing been used for the ex­po­si­tion of “Mme Dodier’s body” after the woman’s ex­e­cu­tion in 1763. Mén­dez was fa­mil­iar enough with Que­bec his­tory to rec­og­nize that Dodier was the mar­ried name of the woman known to Que­be­cers as “La Cor­riveau” of French-Cana­dian leg­end.

The grim ob­ject was taken to the Musée de la civil­i­sa­tion in Que­bec City to be au­then­ti­cated, and in Oc­to­ber 2015 ex­perts con­firmed that it was, in­deed, the in­fa­mous “cage de la Cor­riveau.” Though es­sen­tially un­known to the rest of North Amer­ica, the story of the woman who was im­pris­oned in that cage is part of Que­bec’s his­tory, leg­end, and folk­lore.

Ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian Luc La­cour­cière, in all of Que­bec his­tory there is “no woman with a worse rep­u­ta­tion than Marie-Josephte Cor­riveau.” La Cor­riveau was born in Saint-Val­lier-de-Bel­lechasse across the river from Que­bec City in 1733. In 1749 she mar­ried Charles Bouchard. Their union pro­duced three chil­dren and all seemed to go smoothly un­til Bouchard died in 1760 of “pu­trid fevers,” a di­ag­no­sis no­body ap­pears to have doubted at the time. Later leg­ends whis­per that Marie-Josephte poi­soned Charles or per­haps poured molten lead in his ear while he was sleep­ing. Even­tu­ally, ru­mour would sug­gest that as many as seven hus­bands died by her hand, but the sto­ries were pure in­ven­tion.

After Charles’ death (in the pres­ence of a priest and sev­eral wit­nesses, none of whom saw any­thing sus­pect) Marie-Josephte sought an­other hus­band, as was ex­pected of a young widow with chil­dren. In 1761, she re­mar­ried to a farmer named Louis-Éti­enne Dodier. The new union was tu­mul­tuous. The cou­ple fought fre­quently, and Dodier also clashed with his step­fa­ther, Joseph Cor­riveau — mainly, it seems, about money is­sues and mat­ters re­lated to the man­age­ment of the farm. The fam­ily was dirt poor dur­ing the dif­fi­cult years of Bri­tish mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the con­quest of New France.

On Jan­uary 27, 1763, a neigh­bour found Louis Dodier in the sta­ble, dead in a pool of blood. At first the mili­tia cap­tain who had been called in to in­ves­ti­gate thought Dodier was “killed by his horse,” which the of­fi­cer wrote in his re­port to Ma­jor James Aber­crom­bie, com­man­der of Bri­tish troops in the area. But a ru­mour soon spread among neigh­bours that Joseph Cor­riveau killed his step­son, and in Fe­bru­ary Dodier’s rel­a­tives filed a com­plaint, prompt­ing Gen­eral James Mur­ray, the re­gion’s gover­nor, to or­der an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Dodier’s body was ex­humed, and Dr. Ge­orge Fraser per­formed an au­topsy. On Fe­bru­ary 14, he ruled that “none of the wounds found on Dodier’s body could have been made by a horse.” Joseph Cor­riveau and his daugh­ter were ar­rested.

The trial was held in Que­bec City, at the Ur­su­line con­vent. Be­cause Que­bec was un­der mil­i­tary rule, the pro­ceed­ings took place in mil­i­tary court with a jury of twelve Bri­tish of­fi­cers, none of whom knew French, the only lan­guage un­der­stood by the ac­cused and the wit­nesses. Most of the tes­ti­mony was based on “gos­sip and hearsay,” La­cour­cière noted, and fo­cused on the en­mity among the vic­tim, his wife, and his step­fa­ther. Some wit­nesses also painted Marie-Josephte as a woman of loose morals, but no ev­i­dence ex­ists to sug­gest she was un­faith­ful to her hus­band or in any way be­haved im­prop­erly ac­cord­ing to what was ex­pected from a wife. On April 9, Joseph Cor­riveau was found guilty and sen­tenced to hang. MarieJosephte was found to be an ac­com­plice and was sen­tenced to sixty lashes and to be branded on the hand with the let­ter M for mur­derer.

On the day be­fore Joseph’s sched­uled ex­e­cu­tion, though, there was an ex­tra­or­di­nary rev­er­sal. When the priest came to hear Joseph’s con­fes­sion and to pre­pare him for his death, Joseph sud­denly claimed he had lied to pro­tect his daugh­ter and that, in truth, she was the one who com­mit­ted the crime. His eleventh-hour hon­esty, he said, came from his fear of go­ing to hell. The ob­vi­ously

self-serv­ing dec­la­ra­tion was enough for Gover­nor Mur­ray to have the con­fes­sions of both ac­cused re-ex­am­ined. Marie-Josephte even­tu­ally signed a con­fes­sion in which she ad­mit­ted to killing Dodier with an axe, “due to the bad treat­ment she re­ceived from her hus­band.” Joseph went free, and Marie-Josephte was sen­tenced to hang. She was put to death on April 18, and the leg­end of La Cor­riveau was born soon after.

What cap­tured the pub­lic’s imag­i­na­tion was Mur­ray’s de­ci­sion to ex­pose the young woman’s body in a hu­man-shaped iron cage, hung at a cross­road at La Pointe-de-Lévis on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. Noth­ing like it had been seen be­fore, and the macabre dis­play cre­ated a stir among the lo­cals. In a mor­bid prank, a group of young peo­ple took the cage down and car­ried it to the lo­cal ceme­tery. The cage was re­moved after forty days at the same spot and buried in the ceme­tery, only to be ex­humed in 1849, when it was found to con­tain just “one bone of a leg,” ac­cord­ing to early nine­teenth-cen­tury writer Philippe-Joseph Au­bert de Gaspé.

The macabre cage, or gib­bet, was briefly put on dis­play in Mon­treal, “at the house of Mr. Leclerc,” ac­cord­ing to the news­pa­per La Min­erve, and then, re­ported Le Cana­dien, by a Mr. Hall on the Côte du Palais in Que­bec City. The cage — stolen, ac­cord­ing to poet and au­thor Louis Frechette — was even­tu­ally sold to the Amer­i­can show­man P.T. Bar­num. After that, all traces of it were lost un­til Clau­dia Mén­dez stum­bled upon it in Salem. Since then, re­searchers have dis­cov­ered that the cage was listed in 1899 among ar­ti­facts owned by the Bos­ton Mu­seum and that a tourist guide­book in­cluded it in a de­scrip­tion of the hold­ings of the Es­sex In­sti­tute in Salem.

After her death, La Cor­riveau be­came a reg­u­lar char­ac­ter in French-Cana­dian folk­lore. In his cloak-and-dag­ger novel The Golden Dog, pub­lished in 1877, writer Wil­liam Kirby makes her a poi­soner by trade and a de­scen­dant of an Ital­ian al­chemist with ties to the Bor­gias, no less. Au­bert de Gaspé, in Les An­ciens

Cana­di­ens (1866), pro­vides us with one of the first writ­ten ac­counts of the clas­sic folk tale in­volv­ing La Cor­riveau and her cage.

In his ver­sion, a man named François Dubé, the fa­ther of the nar­ra­tor, is tak­ing a night­time stroll along the Lévis shore of the St. Lawrence and hears a “tick-tack noise.” Sud­denly he feels “two big dry hands, like a bear’s paws, squeez­ing his shoul­ders. Ter­ri­fied, he turns his head and sees La Cor­riveau, cling­ing to him. She ex­tends her arms through the bars of her cage and tries to climb on his back.” La Cor­riveau tells the man that she wants him to carry her to Île d’Or­léans, where her witch friends are hold­ing a Sab­bath. La Cor­riveau can’t cross the St. Lawrence on her own be­cause it is a “blessed” river.

François can hear the witches hold­ing their rites on the is­land and shout­ing at him, “Are you com­ing, lazy dog? Bring our friend to us! We have 14,400 rounds to make be­fore the crow­ing of the cock and we have to leave!”

La Cor­riveau tells Dubé, “Well, if you won’t carry me there, I will stran­gle you and I will get to the Sab­bath by rid­ing on your soul!” And that she does. François, how­ever, doesn’t die. He loses con­scious­ness and wakes up in the morn­ing in a muddy trench near the road. He strug­gles up and finds his bot­tle of fire­wa­ter nearby. He wants to take a sip but ... it’s empty. Ap­par­ently, “the witch had drunk it all!”

For gen­er­a­tions, vari­a­tions of this story have been told and re­told in French-Cana­dian fam­i­lies. I heard a very sim­i­lar one from my grand­mother and found it a very scary tale. The name of the trav­eller changes, but La Cor­riveau in her cage, climb­ing on the man’s back and want­ing to go to the witches’ Sab­bath, al­ways re­mains.

Sto­ries of crea­tures that scrab­ble to cling on a trav­eller’s back are found in folk tales around the world — it even hap­pens to Sin­bad in the Ara­bian Nights. But in Que­bec this fa­mil­iar mo­tif at­tached it­self to an ac­tual his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter, La Cor­riveau, with a real ar­ti­fact, the cage in which her body was ex­posed. And that is why the dis­cov­ery of her cage in a mu­seum is so strik­ing: To a Que­be­cer who heard the creepy tale as a child, the dis­cov­ery of La Cor­riveau’s cage is com­pa­ra­ble to some­body un­earthing Cin­derella’s slip­per or Aladdin’s lamp.

In 2015, three sep­a­rate ex­perts con­cluded that the cage found in Mas­sachusetts was the one used to ex­pose Marie-Josephte Cor­riveau’s body. Ac­cord­ing to Jérome Moris­sette, an art re­storer who spe­cial­izes in met­als, the uni­form cor­ro­sion on the iron bands makes it “im­pos­si­ble that this piece be a re­con­struc­tion.” And so it was that, in the tale of La Cor­riveau, leg­end sud­denly en­tered his­tory.

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A 1916 vis­i­tor’s guide to Salem, Mas­sachusetts, showed what is now known to be the iron cage or gib­bet that con­tained the body of Marie-Josephte Cor­riveau.

The 2016 Que­bec doc­u­men­tary La Cage: L’his­toire de la Cor­riveau ex­plores the re­al­ity and the leg­end of the grim ar­ti­fact.

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